Captain Simeon Potter (1720-1806) Burning of the Gaspee, Charles DeWolfe Brownell 1892
Most famous among the names of the old sea captains of Bristol
of Simeon Potter. For almost half a century Potter was the most
figure in the town in which he was born. He was also one of the
men in the Colony and State of Rhode Island for a large part of that
Simeon Potter was born in Bristol in the year 1720. His father
a man of fortune and the boy's education was almost entirely neglected.
His letters, even in advanced age, are those of an illiterate man who,
apparently, had never attempted to remedy the deficiencies of his
Perhaps this is not to be wondered at. He went forth from Bristol a
sailor lad whose only possessions were a sound body and an imperious
After a comparatively few years spent upon the ocean he returned to his
native town with a purse overflowing with riches, a man to be looked up
to for the rest of his life.
His wealth was acquired in "privateering," and tales of his
upon the sea, and especially of his wild marauding descents upon
coasts, were familiar as household words to the ears of the Bristolians
of three-quarters of a century ago. Those tales lost nothing in the
and in them Potter came to be endowed with attributes he never
This was especially the case with his stature. Like Charlemagne he
to grow taller with each fifty years after his death. He came in time
be pictured as a giant in size and strength, a man whose success was
due to the might of his arm, and not to any especial mental ability.
It was not until the letters of Father Fauque (which follow
on Simeon Potter in this book) had been brought to light that we were
to see him as he really was, a slight man. Possibly his great wealth
than an overpowering personality may have been the cause of his large
His fortune was estimated at a quarter of a million dollars, which was
an enormous sum for those days.
He plunged gladly into the conflicts of the turbulent age, and
happy chance came forth from them all without serious injury. When wars
ceased his restless energy forced him into constant litigations; he
never to be happy unless he had some legal contest on his hands. His
pride had much to do with this. Like many self-made men he could brook
no opposition; he exacted from his townsmen the deference invariably
by seamen to the quarter-deck, and never forgot that his success was
to his own unaided efforts. Very soon after the Prince Charles
returned from the raid upon Oyapoc, French Guyana in 1744, it was
by some officers from a British man-of-war then lying in the harbor of
Newport. They were greatly pleased with the trim, man-o'-war appearance
of the privateer and expressed their approbation of its commander.
they did so with a patronizing condescension that was exceedingly
to the young captain. When at last one of them ventured to ask "why he
did not apply to his Majesty for a commission as the King would
give him a larger and better ship" he could no longer contain himself.
"When I wish for a better ship I will not ask His Majesty for one, I
build one myself," he said, and, turning on his heel, left the
wondering what he could have said that seemed so offensive.
Potter left the sea and came back to Bristol to live just
town had been transferred from Massachusetts to Rhode Island. He was
chosen to represent the town in the General Assembly in 1752, and from
that time until the Revolution, when he had become an Assistant, an
corresponding to that of a State Senator today, his voice was
heard in the colonial councils. After the war had really begun his zeal
(though not his pugnacity) seems to have waned and he ceased to take an
active part in the affairs of either town or State. Possibly the larger
ability, the increasing influence and the more striking personality of
his townsman, Governor William Bradford, may have had something to do
Potters retirement from participation in public life.
However that may be, when the contest that was to result in
of the United Colonies began he plunged into it with immense delight.
lines in his own handwriting, preserved to the present day by a
of one of his sisters (he left no children), show clearly his mental
at that time:
I love with all my heart
The independent part.
To obey the Parliament
My conscience won't consent.
I never can abide
To fight on England's side.
I pray that God may bless
The great and Grand Congress.
This is my mind and heart
Though none should take my part
The man that's called a Tory
To plague is all my glory.
How righteous is the cause
To keep the Congress laws!
To fight against the King
Bright Liberty will bring.
Lord North and England's King
I hope that they will swing.
Of this opinion I
Resolve to live and die
His participation in the destruction of the Gaspee has
described. When the office of Major-General of the Rhode Island
Forces was created his zeal and energy had so impressed his fellow
of the General Assembly that he was chosen to fill it. His tenure of
must have been brief. In 1776 he had been chosen Assistant (Assistants
were elected by the vote of all the freemen of the Colony), but he did
not present himself at many meetings of the Assembly. In fact so
was he of his duties that a vote was passed requesting his reasons for
absenting himself, and demanding his attendance at the next session.
the increased taxes had something to do with it. He was the wealthiest
citizen of Bristol and one of the richest men in the Colony, and the
of money was his chief delight. He could not bear to see it taken away
him even though the independence of the Colonies might thereby be
One day a young nephew was talking with him and lamenting his apparent
lack of success. "How, Captain Potter," said he, "shall I go to work to
make money?" "Make money," said Potter, "make money! I would plow the
into pea porridge to make money!"
In 1777 his name appears for the last time in the Colonial
At the Town Meeting held in Bristol in May of that year "Colonel Potter
was chosen Moderator, but after the usual officers were elected he
and refused to serve any longer."
A tax collector's account was then presented showing that he
to pay all his taxes. Three years later, May 10, 1780, it was voted in
That the Assessors make enquiry and make report to
at the adjournment of the meeting, what part of Colonel Potter's taxes
remain unpaid, and that Mr. Smith, the collector, be desired to apply
the Assessors of the town of Swansea to know at what time said Potter
to pay taxes in said town, and what part of his personal estate has
rated from time to time in said town.
Although he still retained his household in Bristol he had taken up his
residence in Swansea, where the rate of taxation was considerably less
than that of Bristol. In that Massachusetts town he continued,
to reside for the rest of his life. Notwithstanding his residence in
State he still continued a member of Saint Michael's Church. In 1792 a
vote of the Vestry was passed, thanking him for painting the church
and for other benefactions, and in 1799 he presented a bell (with a
inscription) to the parish. His name headed the list of vestrymen from
1793 until his death. He died, at the age of eighty-six, February 20,
leaving no children. His estate was by will divided among his nine
and their descendants. All the beneficiaries did not fare alike. He had
his favorites and his strong prejudices. As is almost always the case
estimate had exaggerated the value of his property. Instead of a
of a million, less than half that amount was divided among his heirs.
inventory showed that he had made a great many "wildcat" investments.
From his house on Thames Street the old captain was borne to his last
resting place in the burying-ground upon the Common.
It was the most impressive funeral the town had witnessed. All
turned out to see the long procession, and to take part in it. The
exploits of his early life were again retold, the innumerable legal
of his later days were again recounted. Full of strife and tumult were
the centuries in which his life had been passed, stormy and passionate
his own career had been. He was perhaps the last, he was certainly the
most successful, of the old sea captains who, as English subjects, had
sailed forth from Narragansett Bay to make war as privateersmen upon
foes of Great Britain. But among those who followed his corpse to its
resting place were men who in less than a decade were to sail out from
Bristol harbor in a little private armed vessel whose success as a
was to surpass his wildest imaginings, a vessel that was to collect
English merchants a tribute many times exceeding that which he had
from the enemies of England. The story of that vessel will be told in
last chapter of this book.
Potter was most noted for his raid upon the coast of French
which an account follows. He was captain of a typical American
when Narragansett Bay was noted throughout the Colonies as a nursery of
privateersmen. Rhode Island furnished more privately armed
for the service of the mother country during the eighteenth century
did any other American Colony. From the year 1700 to the Revolution at
least one hundred and eighty such ships sailed out from its ports. They
were long and narrow, crowded with seamen for their more speedy
and maneuvered with a skill that placed the slower ships of the French
and Spaniards entirely at their mercy. They carried long guns which
them to disable their adversaries at a distance, thus preventing their
enemies from inflicting any damage in return.
Simon Potter. One participant in the Gaspee Affair
was Simeon Potter. He was a Bristol,
Rhode Island, seaman and merchant who was the captain of one of the
attacking longboats. He had brought his own boatload of men from
Bristol to meet the Providence boats.
Potter's Wealth. Potter's wealth was built
on his skill as a pirate or privateer (depending on your point of view
about legalizing plunder on and near the sea). Before 1770, Simon
Potter of Bristol was often referred to a pirate by the British, but is
more accurately described as a privateer who wildly exceed the bounds
of his commission. For example, he sailed out of
Newport in 1744 in command of a Newport-registered sloop, with a
privateer's commission signed by Governor William Greene of Rhode
Island. The commission authorized Potter to seize vessels
belonging to the Kings of Spain and France. Instead of attacking
vessels Potter and crew raided a Jesuit mission in Guinea, stealing the
church silver and vestments, pillaging the nearly houses and
setting fire to the church and settlement. That was only a
sample. There was no doubt that he was an excellent captain with
a well disciplined crew and used intelligent leadership directed toward
capturing wealth to be brought back home as the result of the
privateer's commission. [Hawes. p 38]
Potter amassed a fortune estimated at a quarter of a
million dollars (a large fortune in that era) in his privateering and
left the sea returning to Bristol to live permanently ashore just after
the town had been transferred from Massachusetts to Rhode Island. He
was first chosen to represent the town in the General Assembly in 1752,
and from that time until the Revolution, when he had become an
Assistant, an office corresponding to that of a State Senator today, he
was continually in the colonial councils. His immense wealth was used
by him to demand respect and leadership in Bristol.
The records of the Supreme Court of Judicature,
Assize and General Goal Delivery of Bristol County show Potter's
lawsuits on several occasions in 1770 to 1771 to recover loans in the
range of 300 to 500 English pounds to various individuals, indicating
both that he was setting up merchant shipping adventures, and also that
Potter had a lot of ready cash.
After the war had really begun his civic zeal seems
have waned and he ceased to take an active part in the affairs of
either town or State. Possibly the larger ability, the increasing
influence and the more striking personality of his townsman, Governor
William Bradford, may have had something to do with Potters retirement
from participation in public life after the Revolution started,
although it may have been also the instinct of self-preservation.
Many of the privateers of Bristol and nearby Newport, which was
occupied by the English for most of the war, decided the better part of
valor was to buy a place in the interior countryside of Rhode Island,
and live there instead of Newport. Some of the persons who had
been active in the Revolution at an early stage did not do so, and
found themselves arrested by the English and taken as prisoners to less
than healthy prisons, so Potter may have taken the sensible route of
By 1770, Potter had long retired to a life of ease,
to have his native industry assert itself, so that he was active in a
number of business enterprises. He owned ships and sent them out
on merchant voyages to his profit. He used his wealth to gain
significant social status.
Chief Field Officer of Bristol County. And,
other things, from 1770 onward Potter was the Bristol County Colonel.
[Records of the Colony of Rhode Island]. That had some civil legal
significance, beyond being a title of authority in military
matters. The royal charter of the Rhode Island and Providence
Plantations gave the Governor the title not only of "Governor" but also
that of "Commander in Chief" of the Colony. This legally meant
that the King of England had authorized the Governor to control
not only the military land forces of the colony but also to control
the naval regulation of the colony's waters. Under
English law, a country's jurisdiction extended not only out to
sea as far as a cannon of the day could shoot, but also extended over
everything landside of a straight line drawn between two land points
extending out from the coast. In short, Rhode Island
lawyers asserted that the Rhode Island Governor, not the English Navy,
controlled the waters of Narragansett Bay. That legal
doctrine lay at the heart of some of the legal maneuvering between
Governor Wanton and Lt. Dudingston. Governor Wanton had
received a legal opinion from his Chief Justice that, in effect, an
English ship had no authority to act in colony waters unless the
Governor authorized it. That was at the heart of Wanton's request
to see the authority under which Dudingston was acting.
Now, how does that legal doctrine of Rhode Island's
control of its coastal and bay waters apply to Simeon Potter's position as the
appointed Colonel of Bristol County? The Governor,
through the Rhode Island legislature, appointed field officers to
exercise his military authority "in the field". Potter was the
chief field officer of Bristol County. Bristol's territory
extended half-way across the Bay in the area below Gaspee Point,
until it meets the Kent County jurisdiction. So the raiding
force, attempting to board the Gaspee in June 1772, included the chief
naval officer of Bristol County (Simeon Potter)
as well as the chief civil officer of Bristol County.
Potter's Boat Load. In 1770, Potter also had a
large dwelling house, a distillery, a store, and a wharf in Providence
(on the west side of Main Street and north of Power's Lane) [Chace
Papers, box 1, f 18]. Potter's Providence distillery was a few
houses south of the Sabin Tavern. Potter may or may not have been
in Providence when John Brown laid his plans to attack the
Gaspee. At any rate; Potter left from Bristol -- not from
Providence -- on the night in question with a boatload of men from
Bristol, with the expressed purpose of meeting the boats from
Providence to join together in the attack.